Roberta Gilbert

  Roberta Gilbert


Dr. Murray Bowen, who died in 1990 at the age of 77, was a psychiatrist and a professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. He did important research concerning the human family at the National Institutes of Health. He trained and taught at the famous Menninger Clinic.

Bowen wrote and presented many scientific papers at important psychiatric meetings, and took part in helping to start two academic organizations centered around the human family, AFTA (American Family Therapy Association) and AAMFT (American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy). The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family (formerly Georgetown University Family Center) in Washington, D.C., grew up around him and his work.

The Bowen Center is still a vibrant presence ( in the world of family theory and therapy, training, and conferencing, and it publishes the journal Family Systems. Bowen’s work and the Bowen Center have spawned fifteen other centers in Chicago, New England, Houston, Virginia, Florida, Kansas City, and other places around the globe.

One might stop here and think that this is a great legacy. But all this pales in significance to Bowen’s contributions to the world of ideas. He never wrote a book. But in his collected papers, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, presented, for the most part, at scientific meetings, lie a whole new way of seeing the human.

It is a new and far superior description of human relationships, and directions for a new and better way of conducting oneself in one’s family and in other important relationships. There, too, we find a new and better psychotherapy and important directions for parents, as well as principles for leaders of organizations. All of these exceed, in usefulness, effectiveness, and validity, anything we have had in these areas before.

What Bowen Saw

The basis for the new ideas was the discovery of a fact that no one before Bowen had seen: the emotional unity of the human nuclear family. From working with them, he noticed that families were emotionally connected. That is, what affects one person in a family affects them all. He saw strong ties between them that hugely influence their behavior, feeling and thinking. They are a system.

This new realization dominated Bowen’s thinking from then on. Humans could not be understood except in the context of their nuclear and extended families. We are all not simply stand-alone individuals; we are instead a part of something much larger than we ourselves: our nuclear families. The study of that organism, the family, soon led Bowen to see that not only were nuclear and extended families influencing individuals’ lives, but our generations were potent influences, as well.

Bowen’s psychiatry residents, social workers, and nursing therapists at the university began to research their generations. New tools, such as the family diagram, came into being to keep the information organized and graphic. These new ideas changed peoples’ lives as therapists gained facility with them, and they made for great excitement in the world of psychiatry, where, from the beginning, large groups congregated wherever Bowen spoke.

From the original observation of the emotional unity of the family had come a set of eight concepts, describing how the emotional processes discovered in families played out in detail: triangles, differentiation of self, nuclear family emotional system, family projection, multigenerational family transmission, emotional distancing, sibling position, and societal emotional process. Called Bowen Family Systems Theory, it describes the following:

  • The common relationship patterns in nuclear and extended families, and
  • How we get caught in them
  • What it means to be a grown-up
  • How to transform oneself farther into adulthood on a continuing basis
  • How family relationships can end up with some people leaving
  • How emotional triangles can defeat important relationships
  • How children are often over-focused in families, resulting in various symptoms
  • The influential power of our generations over us
  • How and why siblings in the same family turn out so differently, and
  • Societal emotional progressions and regressions.

Application of Ideas to Organizations

It was quickly seen that all the important systems ideas so useful to families and individuals are just as applicable in organizations. So they explain, for leaders, the emotional side of how an organization functions. This is something that very few, if any, courses or books on leadership touch on.

Further, if leaders learn to think about family systems and making it work in their own family relationships, they function at a better level. That better level carries with it less anxiety. Because the leadership is emotionally influential to everyone in the organization, the whole organization starts to function more efficiently, creatively, energetically and calmly.

Under these circumstances, more work gets done. People start to automatically function more as a team, without all the tiresome and ineffective team-building efforts we sometimes see put forward as solutions. Less time is taken up with relationship intensities that detract from the goals of the organization.

Can all this happen simply from the effects of leaders learning a new way of thinking and of managing self in their families and organizations? Unequivocally, yes, especially if they get coaching to accompany their learning. The author’s experience has been in assisting clergy and business leaders to find their way around this new way of seeing.

This method has shown, over 20 years, that as leaders start to think about systems, along with coaching, and doing the hard but rewarding work of managing themselves at home and with their extended families, their leadership improves drastically. The influence of leadership is such that with a calmer, more adult, in-contact leader, the whole organization comes to life in noticeable ways.

The Center for the Study of Human Systems offers the Extraordinary Leadership Seminar on a yearly basis beginning in October of each year. It began with clergy who have seen these and many other benefits in their congregations and themselves. As organizational leaders joined the seminar, they reported the same improvements in self and their organizations that the pastors saw.

Bowen’s Legacy

The conferences that began with Bowen so many years ago don’t draw the huge crowds they did in the beginning. One wonders about that. The most common explanation heard is that most people shied away when they heard the part about working on self in one’s family relationships over the long term. There is no quick fix here. The human changes only slowly.

Those two factors, working on self in family relationships and staying with it for the long haul, taken together, may mean that only the privileged few will continue to be interested in the project. But for those who take it up, the rewards are great. Marriages, children, and work improve drastically.

The choice between working on self in one’s important relationships and not doing that work is, logically, a no-brainer. Not doing the work means that things will stay stuck in their same old distasteful, undesirable ruts. Doing it means that life becomes unrecognizable from what it had been, at each step along the way.

Bowen’s legacy, in people’s lives, in his thinking, seeing, and writing about a refreshing new way of seeing the human, means that thousands have already benefitted from his life’s work, both in their families and in their organizations. What a wonderful, enormous gift to us all.

One hopes that in the not-too-distant future, our culture at large will benefit from the ideas. Is it too much to hope that his legacy of life-changing ideas will eventually reach to the world of politics and government? Were that to happen, especially the parts about growing oneself up, we would not need perfect unity. People would be free to say what they think and be who they are.

Their ideas might differ. But if leaders were to be more grown-up emotionally, the public discourse would change into a calmer, more logical, creative discussion centered around the common good. What a legacy that would be!

Dr. Roberta Gilbert, in addition to maintaining a private psychiatric practice, is a faculty member of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family and the founder of the Center for the Study of Human Systems ( , author, and speaker. She works with business leaders, pastors, and therapists, particularly in Bowen family systems theory for individuals, families, and organizations.

This article is reprinted from the Legacy Special Edition of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!

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